A/N: So I'm breaking my update schedule for this because this chapter WOULD have been done yesterday, except I went to the dentist and they told me I had nine cavities. So before you read this chapter, FLOSS YOUR DAMN TEETH. The left side of my mouth is made of Novocain and tingling pain and I don't want that to happen to any of my readers. Floss now. Right now. The chapter can wait. Floss.
Okay, good. Now you can read.
The trains were still running, but almost everything was empty. Kotetsu waited, silent and solitary, on the platform until a train pulled up, each car carrying just a few passengers. He boarded, took a seat, and stared at the opposite wall while the monorails wheels clacked rhythmically behind him. His last few minutes in Barnaby's apartment played in his head on an endless loop.
What the hell happened up there? What I did… and what Bunny did…
His body remembered all of it. The certainty when Kotetsu leaned forward, the pleasure when Barnaby responded, the pain when he hit the floor. Kiss, response, rejection. Kiss, response, rejection.
What the hell?
Everything Barnaby said about being an Alpha—not just the biology Kotetsu had picked up along the way, but the pressures, the expectations, the feeling of not being real—didn't excuse the Alphas who harassed Kotetsu for all those years, but when he thought of Barnaby caught in that life, Kotetsu just wanted to take his partner in his arms and hold him close until he soothed everything away. Barnaby could smile on command, charming enough to fool the sponsors and fans, but Kotetsu knew what Barnaby's real happiness looked like. He wanted to protect that real smile with everything he had. Maybe he just hadn't tried hard enough.
Or maybe it had all backfired. Barnaby confessed love for Kotetsu, and loved Kotetsu enough to let him go if he had to. All of the times Kotetsu had reached out to Barnaby and tried to make him feel welcome and included had worked, in a way. It reached Barnaby, and he fell in love with him. Kotetsu's cheeks heated up a bit, and even with just a few other passengers, he looked down to hide his face. Love. Barnaby, falling in love with an old man like him. It was just…
Too good to be true.
Yeah, if Kotetsu had to sum up his feelings on the matter, that's what he'd say. Just imagining that Barnaby cared for and wanted him in a way that could be called love instead of instinct; someone as impressive and intelligent and kind and trustworthy and capable and fun-to-tease and—and—okay, fine, add handsome to that list, too. Kotetsu couldn't say he disliked Barnaby's face or body. All of that, and that person loved him. He had discounted the possibility that Barnaby would ever really love him, not with the cameras off. But somehow, he did. Those words, "I love you," had sparked so many feelings in Kotetsu, and happy was definitely one of them. He wanted Barnaby to share that happiness in return.
On the other hand, maybe that was just the Scent talking. No matter what Kotetsu actually thought of his rookie partner, being in his presence felt wonderful. It just so happened that now, Kotetsu liked his partner a lot more than when they first met. He shouldn't confuse liking someone who smelled nice with loving them. Barnaby had done Kotetsu a favor, rejecting him, reminding him of what he wanted…
Kotetsu touched his fingers to his lips, and his eyes blurred with a little irritation. But I still feel like I want to kiss him, and there's no Scent here.
And that was another thing, why should Kotetsu still want him? Barnaby pushed Kotetsu away—literally! Wasn't the kiss exactly what Barnaby wanted? So what in the world made him stop, just when Barnaby wanted Kotetsu (and Kotetsu wanted Barnaby) the most?
"I'm forbidden from making serious attempts at claiming you."
Kotetsu's eyes widened. Could that have been the reason? Would Barnaby really reject Kotetsu for the sake of Hero TV? Did Agnes have a punishment stashed up her sleeve nasty enough to deter Barnaby from claiming his partner? Kotetsu's fist clenched just thinking about it. Did she think this kind of bullying was any different than Alphas pursuing Kotetsu? If Agnes thought she could dictate Kotetsu's personal life, she had another thought coming!
But then again, if that was really the reason Barnaby rejected him, then that meant he cared more about staying in the executive producer's good graces than Kotetsu. Barnaby was a lot more committed to the publicity-celebrity side of his job than Kotetsu. So would he really push Kotetsu away just for that?
As he rattled his brain for another explanation, he remembered a time, ages ago, when he had previously tried to gain insight into Barnaby's mystifying behavior. Back when Barnaby was so constantly rude to Kotetsu, it had been easy to dismiss his behavior as sour grapes, treating Kotetsu poorly simply because Barnaby couldn't have him. But Nathan had looked a little deeper, and come up with an opposing explanation.
"It's not out of the question that our dear Barnaby, on some level, wants you to hate him so he won't love you."
The train arrived at the stop for the closest inter-Stage elevator, so Kotetsu left the train as he continued to mull over his thoughts. The whole time after he confessed, Barnaby talked like he had already been rejected. Kotetsu had turned him down often enough in the past, back when Barnaby acted like a typical Alpha, so it wasn't a totally crazy guess. But it was still totally wrong! Kotetsu's feelings had changed, as Barnaby changed. They grew together, and if Kotetsu believed his own thoughts, they had fallen in love together, too. But what if Barnaby thought that was unacceptable? If Barnaby didn't believe Kotetsu was telling the truth about his own feelings, or thought that Kotetsu should be with someone else, or remain unclaimed… then he might actually be stupid enough to try and make Kotetsu hate him. He might think Kotetsu's hate could kill his love.
The elevator arrived, and Kotetsu shuffled in amidst the other, sparse, late-night travelers, with his hands shoved in his pockets and his shoes scuffing the train floor.
If that's what you're trying, it's not working, Bunny. Kotetsu thought. I don't hate you. It just… hurts.
But if Barnaby kept this up, Kotetsu had no idea how long he would last. If Barnaby kept pushing him away in the cruelest imaginable ways, then the hurt might turn to hate. And then their partnership…
The rest of the way home—from the station to the street to Kotetsu's stoop—he just wanted to stop. He wished he could lie down and let his pain drain into the ground, leaving him hollow but pain-free. He didn't even care if he lay down on his bed, his floor, or in the gutter. Just stop. Make it all stop.
He slid his key into the lock, opened the door, and shucked off his fancy clothes, his jacket, tie and waistcoat all pooling in a pile of fabric on his doormat. They'd get wrinkled; he didn't care. He just stumbled into the room, struggling to kick off his shoes without undoing the laces, and finally he flopped down on his couch and closed his eyes, waiting for gravity to pull the pain from his body like water from a clothesline.
It didn't work. Lying down didn't make Kotetsu feel any better than standing. He just sighed and opened his eyes again, staring at the junk left out on his coffee table: his remote, a few magazines, last night's beer can, his home phone…
His home phone, with one message on the answering machine.
Even if he didn't want to talk to anyone, Kotetsu should still listen, in case it was from his family. Fumbling, Kotetsu reached out and jammed the 'messages' button with his thumb, then waited for the recording to play.
"Kotetsu, it's Barnaby. Please call me. I'll explain everything."
Kotetsu's half-closed eyes flew open. He paused for a second to stare at the phone, but then sat up. Barnaby called him? The holo-screen said that the call happened—with a bit of mental math—no more than a few minutes after Barnaby kicked Kotetsu out of his apartment, long before he reached home.
Is he serious? Kotetsu scowled at his phone. I love you, get out, call me? Can't he make up his mind? Some part of him wanted to delete Barnaby's message. It served him right for being such an indecisive jerk! But that part felt like the same spiteful part that told him to sit back and watch Elijah and Barnaby fight. So, Kotetsu picked up the phone, held it to his ear, and redialed.
Barnaby picked up in the middle of the first ring. "Kotetsu?" he asked, his tone urgent.
Kotetsu tugged at his collar. Was this really the same guy who told him to go home? Had Barnaby changed his mind and wanted Kotetsu back? Then why call home instead of his cell? "Yeah," Kotetsu said. "I got your message."
"Thank you for calling back. I mean it," Barnaby said. "I'm sorry I yelled at you, but… I didn't know what else to do."
"Don't forget that you shoved me, too," Kotetsu scowled, the expression hidden by distance. "Why?"
"I had a feeling that, if we had continued… we might have mated."
Kotetsu's jaw dropped. Mated!? Had things really been getting that far out of hand?! Sure, Kotetsu felt reallygood kissing Barnaby—really good—but would Kotetsu really have agreed to… that? His face heated at the realization that Kotetsu had been an inch away from envisioning exactly that when he was in Barnaby's arms. But surely he and Barnaby deserved more credit than that!
"It was just a kiss, Bunny," Kotetsu insisted. "Last time I checked, a kiss isn't mating." At least, I hope it isn't.
"You had come to my apartment in order to remind me that you don't want Alphas pushing you around," Barnaby said. "Even if it was an incredibly small chance, I couldn't take the risk."
"I kissed you. You didn't push me into anything. Or did you not want me to kiss you?"
"No! I did! I did! I—ah—I mean, the kiss… I did want you to kiss me," Barnaby trailed off, and Kotetsu fought back a laugh. He could just picture his partner blushing up to his ears as his composure crumbled. "But I didn't know if it was what you truly wanted."
"It seemed like a pretty clear choice to me," Kotetsu fiddled with the phone cord.
"You made that choice in a room full of Alpha pheromones, which are naturally designed to encourage you to mate," Barnaby explained. "It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it's no better than a drunken hook-up. It's a lot worse, actually."
Kotetsu frowned a little. The drunken comparison seemed really accurate, especially considering how Alphas smelled like intoxication felt. But even in the stale air of the monorail train, Kotetsu's choice had stayed the same. "It's not that bad," Kotetsu lied through his teeth. "I hang around your Scent all the time. I've got a resistance to it."
"Are you sure about that?" Barnaby called the bluff, but before Kotetsu could protest further, he continued speaking. "But potency aside, I couldn't take the risk. If you do choose to mate with me… I can't express how happy I would be. But I don't want you to ever regret that decision. I didn't want to wake up next morning and hear you say it was all a mistake. So long as we have our wits about us, we don't have to let it get that far."
Kotetsu nodded. He didn't want to have to face Barnaby and say he had made a mistake, either. "So… what are you saying with all this?"
"I'm saying you should decide without the influence of Alpha Scent."
Kotetsu blinked. "So… you shoved me?"
"I'm sorry. I'm truly sorry. Some of it was the stimulant effect of your Scent, some of it was panic. Did I hurt you?"
"Nah, I'm fine Nothing hurt but pride."
"Don't go all Sky High on me. You've said sorry." Kotetsu leaned back on the sofa and rested his feet on the coffee table. "For a second there, I thought you did it for Hero TV. Y'know, the high-tension subplot…"
"Well, I would prefer that we stayed in Ms. Agnes's good graces, but I couldn't care less about maintaining her subplot," Barnaby said. "This way, we can give her fair warning, but her preferences are irrelevant to our relationship."
"Heh, I never thought I'd hear you dismiss Agnes like that," Kotetsu teased.
"We should consider her feelings, but there's no obligation to listen to her. The most important thing to me is that you're sure you want this, and not just because of my Scent."
Kotetsu paused, another blush rising on his face. 'This' meant 'mating,' and 'mating' meant 'sex.' That was finally settling in for him. If he and Barnaby started a relationship, it would happen sooner or later. Last time he had felt this scared about sex, he was a virgin. In a way, he was a virgin again. Given the animalistic nature of Scenting, Kotetsu knew when it came to sex, he'd have a very precise role, independent of all the social pressures. He didn't feel prepared for it at all. And Kotetsu had realized barely an hour ago that he loved Barnaby at all. Now to jump straight to sex?
Still unsure, Kotetsu mumbled into the phone, "So… you really love me?"
"I do." The warmth in Barnaby's voice sent a familiar, excited tingle down his spine. "But I don't expect you to choose right now."
"No, I mean… the choice isn't the problem," Kotetsu said. "The Scents and stuff were running away with us, but even after my head cleared up, I—ah…" Kotetsu struggled not to stutter. "I felt terrible. And not because I thought I had made a mistake, or done something I didn't want to do. I felt bad because I thought… I had blown my chance with you." He drew a breath and sighed again. "Everything that I did, I wanted it then and I want it now. But I'm still nervous about what exactly will happen next."
"I understand. So if you had to put it in words, you'd say you return my feelings, but want to go slow?"
Kotetsu covered a cheek with his free hand. He could have fried rice on his face, but he answered, "Y—Yeah, that's right."
"Okay," Barnaby chuckled lightly. "You never fail to astound me."
"What? No way," Kotetsu scoffed, face still burning. "You're the special one here."
"No, I'm not—"
"I mean it! You don't just smell like an Alpha, it's way more than that," Kotetsu said. "You're an Alpha and literally everything else that smells good. Hundreds of other things. It shocked me when we first met. I've never met an Alpha that smelled like you before."
The line was silent for a second, then Barnaby laughed again. "Is that so?" he said. "Once again, it seems we're more alike than we thought."
"Has anyone ever described your Scent to you?"
"Uh… really good?" Kotetsu scratched at his beard. "I try to not listen when people are talking about my Scent."
"Well, Omegas smell like electricity, heat, pleasure… and like waiting for a starter's pistol to fire," Barnaby said. "Every muscle in my body feels tense and ready to go. It's a beautiful sensation, and you already possess a powerful Scent. But on top of that, you smell like a hundred other beautiful things. Like lilies… cedar… old, well-bound books… mint… morning frost… the darkest chocolate… jasmine oil…"
Kotetsu's jaw had dropped a little, but he closed it and swallowed the lump in the back of his throat. "That's… me?"
"That's you," Barnaby said. "According to me."
"Oh," Kotetsu squirmed a little on the couch, the similarities and differences between himself and Barnaby causing his imagination to run wild again. "I… I didn't know that."
"Now you do," Barnaby said. Kotetsu could feel him smirking on the other side. "I could go on, if you don't believe me."
"No, no, that's fine! I get the picture!" Kotetsu insisted. Frankly, if Barnaby kept talking about his own Scent with that smooth, sweet voice, then Kotetsu might spend this evening in a very different way than he was anticipating. "I get it, I smell good. You've kind of proven that in other ways."
"Well, chasing me constantly through the first few weeks… And then when I was at your apartment."
"Did you not believe I still wanted you in the interim there?"
"I thought you'd learned to calm down."
"I see. I've actually learned a lot, through this partnership with you," Barnaby's words hesitated a little bit. "Before we met, I spent my entire life devoted to revenge. Even with Omegas available, I never claimed one, because I thought I needed to avenge my parents first. My opinion has changed a bit since then…"
"Yeah, mine too," Kotetsu admitted, reading between the lines. Barnaby had never had a mate before, either, so he was as much of a 'virgin' as Kotetsu. "So how about we both think about this a little more? Talk again on Monday?"
"Good idea. Take as much time as you need."
"Maybe not too much time…" Kotetsu said. The sensual descriptions of his own Scent still had him a little bothered, and he didn't want to accidentally push Barnaby too far away. "You want this too, right?"
"It won't mean anything unless you want it. I have to know I'm respecting you."
"Damn, what made you grow up so much?" Kotetsu joked.
"I met you," Barnaby replied. "I'll see you on Monday."
"Yeah, see you."
Kotetsu hung up the phone, then yawned. He pushed himself up off the couch and climbed the stairs to bed, again longing to lie down, but this time free from hurt. Once in bed, he pulled up the blankets and closed his eyes, letting his mind drift toward sleep.
The one I want… You… You're the one…